Statesmen and Politicians
Cranks and Faddists
Londoners and Provincials
The Tyranny of Music
The Sporting Instinct
Street Traffic, Ancient and Modern
Woman, Man and the dodo
Navy and Army
English Railway Engines
Our Criminal Classes
Bachelors and Wives
On English Minor Poets
Concerning John Bullism
Our Commercial Travellers
It used to be customary for writers of a certain class to refer contemptuously to commercial travellers, alluding to them as "bagmen." In America I believe the word used is "drummer." There is a venerable tale told in America which illustrates this attitude. It is to the effect that a man fell off the roof of a twenty-story block right on to the sidewalk or pavement, and was quite uninjured. The only explanation given was that he was a "drummer," and fell on his cheek. Just as some portions of the community – lawyers, journalists, and politicians – are compendiously dismissed as "liars," so all commercial travellers are supposed to be endowed with consummate impudence. Let me say at once that I do not share that view, and it has fallen to my lot to meet with many of these men, of all the different grades in their calling. There was a time when the leading travellers of the day were distinguished by a certain amount of pomposity in their bearing. A very elaborate code of etiquette was enforced in their dining-room, and when they marched in to dinner one might well think that they were a number of plenipotentiaries assembling at a congress of nations. The chairman had certain rights in regard to the ordering of wine, and there were niceties of position concerning the place of each man at the table which each observed. When those old customs were in full force I believe no man other than a commercial traveller could sit at their table without permission – and the request had to be made in a deferential tone. I do not say that a duke would have been thrown out had he failed to comply with these preliminaries, but the commercial gentlemen would have shown by their bearing what they thought of the ducal intrusion.
These rules have been to a great extent relaxed, though I believe that in large hotels it is still customary for a coffee-room guest to intimate in some way his hope that he is not looked on as an intruder, should he choose to dine in the commercial room. It has generally been in small hotels in remote places, particularly in Wales, that I have come across these gentlemen, who have been described in a book written by one of themselves as "Ambassadors of Commerce." Thus most of those whom I have met have been the smaller men of their calling, rather rough, but as cheery a lot of fellows as one can wish to meet. I well remember one occasion in a small hotel in South Wales, when I went into the dining-room before anyone else, not knowing that this involved me in certain duties. It was pointed out that being first in the room made it essential that I and none other must take the chair, and to my horror I found that this meant that I was to carve. Now, I cannot carve – few men can, though many who cannot think they can, while I have no illusions on the matter, cheerfully recognising my deficiencies. It was in vain that all this was explained – they all insisted and pretended to believe that unless the man who first entered the room did the carving, terrible ill-luck, amounting to disaster, would certainly overtake all present. So I yielded, saying that it was quite possible that something like disaster would happen to those sitting near me when the carving began. Luckily I was not called on to tackle the intricacies of poultry or game, for an enormous joint of beef appeared. As a special consideration I was allowed to stand up to the business, and I went to work with the utmost zeal – indeed, I put my back into it. The beef happened to be much underdone, and the result was that before I had finished wielding the huge knife my end of the table looked like the shambles. I made my mark that day – several marks and stains – but my friends cheered and laughed in the most encouraging manner. Later on it appeared that another responsible duty fell to my lot as chairman, for I had to collect two pennies from each man present, as contributions to two commercial travellers' institutions, enter the amounts in two separate books, add up the pence, sign the books and hand them and the money over to the landlord. I understand that this is done continually wherever travellers dine together, and big sums are thus raised in a manner that cannot be felt burdensome by anyone.
Commercial travellers are as a rule tremendous politicians. They read many papers on their long journeys, and in an evening they will debate public questions in hotel smoke rooms, contending one with another in a manner that makes the front bench encounters in the House appear poor and tame. They are very fond of ornate and official phraseology, loving to begin a sentence in some such way as "Unless my memory deceives me I think I am right in asserting." And they allude to the leading men of the day with extraordinary freedom – sometimes in a manner that would make those distinguished and right hon. gentlemen gasp and stare, if they heard the easy style in which they are ticked off. But of course the conversation of the commercial room is not always controversial in tone. Sometimes public questions and matters of business are dropped, and the talk becomes personal and pointed. As a rule the interchange of repartee between travellers, that which is technically known as "back-chat," is not subtle or elusive, but is rather plain and blunt. References to the peculiarities of personal appearance – the size of feet, the colour of the nose, the expanse of waistcoat, and so on – are favourite methods of scoring a point. The verbal lunge and parry and riposte on such occasions are generally quite good-humoured, though I remember one occasion on which an elderly gentleman of the road seemed to think that a waggish junior had gone somewhat beyond the limits of becoming mirth.
The older of the two was rather bald, and such hair as remained on his head was white, while his moustache was jet-black, and the young wag, in order to add to the joviality of the evening, said, "I say, old man, I suppose you put your moustache out with your boots at night to be blacked." The remark was well received by all except the gentleman to whom it was addressed, nor did I soothe him by adding that his moustache would be described as "black as night and also black as Day – and Martin.†"
[† Day and Martin produced a widely used boot polish called "Black Diamond"]
All those who have any knowledge of the subject agree that the commercial travellers of the present day are as a class a steady and temperate body of men. There is less "treating" as a method of securing orders than was once the case. The railway companies offer remarkable facilities to travellers to return home at the end of the week, and the result is that many make quite long journeys to join their families. And people who know nothing about the habits of these gentlemen of the road would be quite surprised to learn what an amount of solid reading is put in by some after the necessary letter writing in an evening is finished. I once came across a traveller in the Midlands who was studying a book with absorbed attention, and later on I found that he was reading Hobbes's Leviathan. It struck me that he was probably the only man in these islands who was at that hour poring over that curious work. On another occasion I detected a worthy representative of a big grocery firm working away most industriously at an epic in blank verse!
I am told that during the last year or two a large number of American travellers have begun to hustle up and down this country. A chemist informed me quite recently that many of these gentlemen from the enlightened and emancipated republic of the West are engaged in recommending patent medicines of the "cure-all" type, and that their methods differ but little from those of the eloquent cheap jack who harangues wondering crowds in country marketplaces on Saturday nights. Moreover, the American traveller not only pushes his goods, but he shows an amiable readiness to teach shopkeepers and their assistants the best way in which to run their business. I know of one case in which one of these trans-Atlantic gentlemen obtained the names and addresses of all the assistants in a shop, and afflicted them with long letters almost daily, explaining the art of wheedling a customer, and the true inwardness of "dressing" a shop window. In all the letters it was made quite clear that the traveller thought the chief duty of man consisted in singing the praises of the stuff sold by the traveller's firm, and in giving it prominence in the window. It is possible to be too assiduous in such attentions, and the old proverb which says that art consists in concealing art applies to the work of the traveller. Above all, he must never fail to be good-humoured – and in this he resembles men engaged in nearly every form of enterprise. Most British commercial travellers are endowed with this quality. They are not today quite so jovial and rollicking as the rotund old boys who used to jog round the country in a gig, almost capsizing the vehicle when climbing into or out of it, digging men in the ribs, smiting them on the back, and indulging in honest guffaws of horse laughter. But they are a genial cheery lot – they deserve a good time in this world, and I am sure they have as much chance of a good time hereafter as most men have.
Some little time ago a Law Court was called on to decide the question – what is manual labour? – and there were some who held that even the most distinguished artists, including the President of the Royal Academy, were engaged in manual labour. This view was certainly favoured by that honest visitor to a famous picture gallery who pointed to an extensive oil painting and said with something like awe, "I'm told that the paint on one of them things comes to a matter of five pounds, let alone man's time laying it on." And Thackeray, who loved and studied this branch of art, has declared:
The posing of figures and drapery; the dexterous copying of the line; the artful processes of cross-hatching, of stumping, of laying on lights and whatnot; the arrangement of colour, and the pleasing operations of glazing and the like, are labours for the most part merely manual.
I am not stating this as my own opinion – indeed, if one were to push the point to an extreme, it could be argued that poets who write, orators who convince more by thumping a table than by the spoken word, pickpockets, prize-fighters, barbers, dentists, surgeons, and many others, are all manual labourers. The same may be said of the President of the United States when he shakes hands with three thousand citizens, and it is equally true of each of the three thousand.
There was a time when all artists were regarded as picturesque and not too clean Bohemians, wearing sombreros and faded velvet jackets. To revert once more to Thackeray – how that great novelist delighted to refer to the ferocious "mustachios" (as he persisted in calling them) of the artists, and the huge beards down to their waists! All this is, I am told, altered today, and the modern artist is often a spick-and-span clean-shaven gentleman, rejoicing in what is known as the "frock-coat figure," carrying a neatly rolled umbrella, wearing a tall silk hat, and, ye gods! light-coloured spats. It is said that were it not for our modern curates the large moustache would have become extinct. There was once an Oxford don who, when asked if he was an authority on science, made reply," I know nothing about it – I don't even teach it." In the same way I may say that I am profoundly ignorant about art, but in spite of that I do not criticise it. And I detest the "honest fellow" who, while proclaiming that he may not be an expert, always adds, "But I know what I like." It generally happens that what such a man likes is something far inferior to the average oleograph in merit.
There is a certain number of gentlemen who are turned loose every year to "do" the Royal Academy for the Press, and these gentlemen take themselves very seriously. They stalk through the rooms, they "rake" the works of art, they make little notes in the catalogue, and later on they sum up, find a verdict and pass sentence. Some people think that the artist's world is one of peace and tranquillity, but the fact is, controversy rages in every world. Politicians have their rows (the greater part of political work consisting in calling names); theologian shave their sacred "scraps"; there are storms in the world of literature (as witness the bloodthirsty feuds between the Shakespearians and the Baconians), and scientists snap at each other viciously – but to the outsider the gentle occupation of the painter of pictures suffers from no disturbances of this sort. In the same way the smiling surface of the summer sea suggests peace, and yet down below there is an eternal state of affairs worse than Chicago. I remember being the innocent cause of a very lively time in a club frequented by artists, and all I did was to ask the question, "After all – what is art?" The gentlemen present smiled at one another as if pitying my ignorance, and each began, quietly enough, to answer the question in his own way. But soon clouds began to appear on the horizon, there were sudden squalls, the combat deepened (if I may vary the metaphor), the action became general, as general as it used to be at Donnybrook Fair, wicked words were used and more wicked looks exchanged. The supposed gentle artists raved about the Romanesque style and the Flemish school, the Romanticists of Germany and the pre-Raphaelites of England, and long before they had finished with the Renaissance they had their livid faces close together, and were exchanging desperate curses in panting whispers.
And after all they had not really answered my question – What is art? The instinct of self-preservation led me to agree warmly with everything that was said by everybody, for at such a time the mahlstick (surely it should be maulstick) is mightier than the sword or the poleaxe. So I left them turning the air blue about the Renaissance, and I went off to consult a dictionary furtively. Here I found that art is "whatever has been made by man, as opposed to what is natural." Here is a wide definition, and if it be accepted we must regard a tramp's trousers as art, and also Aldgate pump, Ludgate Hill Station, a motor-'bus, my hat, and thousands of other things which would certainly be repudiated by my frantic friends whose little differences of opinion I have noticed. Another definition of art declares it to be "the visible expression of the sublime and beautiful"; but that is of no service, since it is notoriously impossible to decide what is beautiful and what is not. Even in regard to female beauty the standard varies in different regions, and there are parts of the world in which the flatter and broader a lady's nose is the more anxious the producers of picture postcards are to get her face as a copyright picture. Who shall say, who has the right to say, whether a squashed-in and flattened-out nose is more or is less sublime and beautiful than the other sort? The fact is it is impossible for an outsider to decide what is art and what is not. And it is useless to appeal to the artists themselves, or if you do it is well at the same time to ring up a few ambulances. Supposing for a moment that you could discover a picture as to which all men everywhere would agree to the verdict "There is no art in that" – the man who did it, who perpetrated it, could say with force and reason, "Art consists in concealing art – I have evidently concealed it so successfully that none of you can detect it, and that is a proof of my art." In this way it may be urged that everything is art; but we will keep to pictures, and here we find that they all come within the ambit of the phrase. If art is obvious – well, there it is; if it eludes detection by the keenest and most friendly eye, then it is concealed, and that fact shows its existence.
In my intercourse with artists I have heard much about "masterpieces" – and this is another term which has various and curious meanings. I have never dared to submit the question – "What is a masterpiece?" – to a gathering of artists owing to the painful results of my asking them to decide what art is, and so I have had to consult the lexicographer once more. According to that authority a masterpiece is "a performance superior to anything else done by the same person." Supposing I were to paint two or three pictures, they would all be bad, nay, shocking – I do not mean improper, but appalling so far as lack of merit is concerned. Yet it is inconceivable that they would all be equally bad. There would be one just a shade less bad than the others, and in this way it would answer or conform to the requirements of the definition in being a "performance superior to anything else done by the same person." In other words, it would be my masterpiece, my chef d'œuvre, something of which, if I had no reason to be proud, I might at least be less ashamed than of other inferior productions. I once heard a golfer say of his play that however bad a stroke he made he always found consolation in the reflection that it might have been worse – and I suppose the same may be said about pictures.
I have no desire to make it appear that artists as a class are given to the use of bad language to an unusual degree, for I should say this is not so. But I have heard some of them use great plainness of speech about the Hanging Committee of the Royal Academy, even as in another sphere gentlemen whose articles are rejected by soulless editors dance with rage and invoke all sorts of curses on those able men. No doubt the members of the Hanging Committee resemble the Western musician who did his best, but it is certain that pictures have been rejected which were better than some which have been accepted. That is unavoidable – inevitable, nor does it prove any act of moral turpitude against that much maligned body.
Some years ago, when the Royal Aquarium still cheered and blessed the world at Westminster, the directors of the place resolved to have an exhibition of works of art that had been sent in to Burlington House and had been rejected. I went to see this forlorn Legion of the Damned, exposed to that fierce light that blackens every blot, and I was much moved as I looked on these works of art which were, so far as the Royal Academy is concerned, unhonoured and unhung. As I have said, in spite of the fact that I know nothing about art, I have with rare abnegation abstained from being an art critic, and so all I will say is that there did not appear to me to be much difference between some of the pictures shut out of Burlington House and some let in. But there were others that made even me jump. There were some far inferior to those striking representations of a slice of salmon, or a sunset at sea, with which the pavement artist adorns our streets. In more than one case I remember saying to myself," That daub cannot be a masterpiece, for the word suggests something better than other productions by the same person, and it would be impossible to imagine – it has not entered into the heart of man to conceive – anything worse than that." As to one work of art, I can assure the reader that what I am about to relate is absolutely true – nay, I do not mind confessing that I could not have concocted it, the notion would not have occurred to me. A lady had with scissors snipped out of cardboard the representation of a gentleman with tall hat and frock-coat complete. Then with pen and ink she had cunningly added nose and eyes, moustache and so forth, and then, no doubt with high and confident hope, she had sent her treasure to run the gauntlet of that envious Hanging Committee. The wretches refused it! I can imagine them exclaiming in the words of Shakespeare:
"O horror! horror! horror! tongue nor heart
Cannot conceive nor name thee!
Confusion now hath made his masterpiece."
And thus was an undoubted product of home industry rejected. Yet anyone could see at a glance what it was that the lady meant to represent by her effort, and that is more than can be said of many an ambitious work that cumbers the walls of the Royal Academy.
Some years ago I spent one of the most pleasant evenings I can remember taking supper in an artists' club in Glasgow. I was allowed to address them on art, and I founded my little speech on an incident I had witnessed in the streets of that lovely city. I put the case in this way: "I believe that in all great works of art there should be some figure or some object which attracts the eye, unconsciously perhaps, some dominating feature, around which everything else is grouped. Today I saw on one of your pavements some brilliantly coloured work, and the whole of the surrounding details led up to the central object, which was an ancient tall hat standing on its crown, pathetically, nay, more than pathetically, imperiously, demanding alms. It struck me, gentlemen, as art in the truest sense." Scotsmen, even Scottish artists, are practical men, and my hosts asked me if the appeal of the hat was successful, and I assured them that bawbees dropped into that venerable interior even as the gentle rain from heaven. My friends were impressed, for they said, with evident feeling, that the man who could make his pictures pay, whether they were produced on canvas, or on the cold flagstones of a Glasgow street, was indeed, and in the truest sense of the word, an artist.